The over-representation of looked after children in the youth justice system has to be challenged and changed, an independent review led by Lord Laming has stated.
Around half of the children currently in custody in England and Wales have been in care at some point, the Prison Reform Trust review found. The review was established to examine the reasons for, and how best to tackle, the over-representation of children in care, or with experience of care, in the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
“Looked after children are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system. This is a national problem which central and local government, and local criminal justice agencies, can and must do more to address,” said the report. “Reductions in the rate at which children in care are criminalised will not happen by accident. It takes leadership nationally and locally, a commitment to good practice, effective joint working and operations and performance measurement founded on reliable data.”
When the state takes over the parenting of someone else’s child, it has both a legal and moral responsibility to be a good parent and this will often require determined effort to remedy the inadequacies or serious failure of the earlier parenting experienced by the young person, the report says.
Most children in care have experienced abuse or neglect
While there is considerable existing provision in statutory guidance for local authorities which should protect looked after children from criminalisation, compliance is not consistent and there are areas in which the guidance must be strengthened, the inquiry found.
The inquiry found that for nearly two-thirds of children in care, the main reason they are looked after is that they have suffered abuse or neglect. Therefore, early support for children and families plays an important part in protecting children and young people in care, and those on the edge of care, against criminalisation.
It also found that not enough is known about the relationship between the involvement of looked after children and young people in the criminal justice system and their ethnicity, faith, gender or disability. Therefore action is needed by all relevant agencies in order to fulfil their obligations under equality law and give looked after children in minority groups the particular protection from criminalisation that they need.
In addition children and young people with developmental disabilities and disorders, learning disabilities, learning difficulties and speech, language and communication needs are known to be over-represented in care and the criminal justice system, said the report.
“Close joint work between children’s social care and social services, youth offending services, the police and other criminal justice agencies must become standard practice across England and Wales in order to protect looked after children from criminalisation,” said the report. “This work should be aimed at ensuring carers are able to support children to behave in a socially acceptable way and to deal with challenging behaviour without involving the police; that looked after children are diverted from the criminal justice system wherever possible; and that, where this is not possible, looked after children are well supported and fairly treated throughout the criminal justice process and prevent reoffending.”
Failure is costly both in personal terms and for the state
The report recommends:
- The formation of a cabinet sub-committee (England), or equivalent body (Wales), to provide national leadership in protecting looked after children and young people from unnecessary criminalisation by ensuring there is good joint working, proper regulation and policy development across UK government departments, and across the Welsh Government, to act as an example to local government services.
- The committee should commission and disseminate a cross-departmental concordat on protecting looked after children from criminalisation, to reinforce the statutory obligations of all relevant agencies and highlight the need for joint action.
- Each concordat on protecting looked after children from criminalisation should explicitly recognise the important role that early support for children and families plays in protecting children and young people in care, and those on the edge of care, against criminalisation.
- Local authorities must hold a regular, formal panel meeting with the local police force and other partners to review the circumstances of each looked after child at the first indication that they may have begun to offend, so that early, purposeful diversion from the criminal justice system can be put in place.
- Local authorities must put in place resources, including training and support through practitioner forums, to ensure that carers in all placements are able to support children’s social development and respond to challenging behaviour without involving the police formally.
- Each concordat on protecting looked after children from criminalisation should explicitly recognise the important role that good parenting by the state plays in protecting children and young people in care against criminalisation.
- All children should be assessed by a mental health professional upon entering care.
- Each concordat on protecting looked after children from criminalisation should reinforce the responsibility of children’s social care services to work closely with youth justice services.
“This report is aimed at encouraging good practice and ensuring that sound quality standards become the everyday experience for each and every child who has to depend upon the state for their safety, their proper development and their confidence in their future,” the report said. “Although the task demands much of everyone involved with each young person it is, nevertheless, both essential and potentially most rewarding for both the young person and the state.”
“Drift is the enemy of the good in the life of a young person. Failure is costly both in personal terms and for the state,” concludes the report.